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After his luxury butcher Barbecoa receives a one-star hygiene rating, is Jamie Oliver's food empire spread too thin?

  • @iburrell

Having built his £150 million empire on the back of media exposure, Jamie Oliver has learned to accept that whenever his career suffers a minor setback it will be celebrated by the press with a flurry of culinary-themed quips.

Again questions are being asked as to whether Jamie is “trying to keep too many plates spinning” after rogue ingredients, including mould and mouse droppings, were discovered by public health officers in Barbecoa, his luxury butcher in the City of London.

It’s only a few weeks since another newspaper wondered if Jamie had “bitten off more than he can chew”, after the TV chef closed three out of four branches of his British-themed Union Jacks restaurant chain.

But the reality is that Oliver’s business is emerging from the economic downturn in good shape, despite the appetite in the press for his reputation to get burned like those of Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson. The Jamie brand has not yet reached its sell-by date, unlike the Wagyu beef, marrow bone, oxtail, onglet and lomo de caña in the basement chillers at Barbecoa.

His Jamie’s Italian restaurant chain continues to expand and had a turnover of £94 million last year, with profits of £13.2 million. Although the growth of new outlets in the UK (currently at 35) has slowed, expansion is planned into new territories including Australia, Russia, Hong Kong and Brazil.

Jamie Oliver Holdings, which includes the chef’s television and book interests, reported a 13.3 per cent growth in revenue last year, with pre-tax profits up 8.4 per cent to £9.7 million.

At Oliver’s business headquarters in north London, his “diary team” are already filling out his schedule for 2015. This process begins with allocating seven weeks to family holidays. His PR team – part of a core staff of more than 250 – denies that, to use another metaphor from the kitchen, he is spreading himself too thinly. “Jamie is supported by an excellent senior management team, all of whom do everything in their power to ensure quality across the various businesses. There is no question of Jamie being spread too thinly. The management team are there to run the businesses efficiently and effectively.”

Oliver is currently ensconced with his book editor applying the final touches to Comfort Food, his next collection of recipes. He has been working on the publication – his 16th – since September and it will be accompanied by a Channel 4 series that begins filming next month. The TV chef – who famously used television to campaign for healthier food in schools - is fully expecting a backlash from sections of the press over his endorsement of sticky puddings and other stodgy fare. But a row over calories won’t hurt the ratings.

On Friday – the latest of his annual Food Revolution Days - he will try to break a Guinness World Record for the most people cooking simultaneously. The target is a modest couple of thousand but Oliver will attempt to harness the Internet and a global army of schoolchildren to push the record into seven figures.

He recently launched Jamie Oliver’s Drinks Tube channel on YouTube to celebrate cocktails, beers, wine and tea. Backed by prominent product placement of a global drinks brand, it is a sister channel to Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube, which claims to be the largest online food community in Europe with more than 800,000 subscribers.

Despite all this activity, the hygiene failings at Barbecoa butcher’s – which led to a one star out of five rating for cleanliness – will have damaged the adjoining restaurant of the same name. Health inspectors have previously exposed problems at Oliver eateries in London’s Canary Wharf, Leeds, Edinburgh and Portsmouth. Inevitably, each incident has made the media. Oliver will need to spend time with chef Gennaro Contaldo, his partner in Jamie’s Italian, to shore up the reputation of the restaurant business. Sharing a bowl of comfort food won’t be enough.